In an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, English professor Nina Handler laments the extinction of her species:
Charles Smithson, a character in John Fowles’s 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is a wealthy, idle gentleman who faces the challenge of realizing that he, as a type, is becoming extinct. The novel is set in 1867, and Charles, a devotee of Darwin, considers the recently published On the Origin of Species to be his bible. His social class will cease to exist within a generation, and Charles has both the wisdom to see that he must adapt and the self-awareness to know that he is incapable of it. He is being swept away by evolutionary change but is helpless to change his fate.
I am a college English instructor. This is a bad time for my species — and a bad time for the study of English. In academe, we are witnessing an extinction of fields of study once thought essential. I teach at a private university that has just canceled majors in English, religious studies, philosophy, and music. The English major is becoming the useless gentleman, the Charles Smithson, of the modern university.
It’s a disheartening essay, particularly when she points out that as education becomes merely a hoop to jump through in order to find work, the values assigned to that education relate solely to its vocational utility.
I fully understand that, because when I declared for English as my major — way back in the mid-80s — everyone had the same question: “Oh, so you’re going to be an English teacher?” As if getting a bachelor’s degree in the study of literature could not possibly qualify me for anything other than turning around to teach others to study the same thing.
“No,” was my answer.
“I don’t know.” At the age of 19, how would I know what I planned to do with my life? I thought the point of a university education was to equip me with the tools I could use to figure that out — and for the rest of my days thereafter.
Thirty years ago, most people could not comprehend choosing a university degree that had no immediate and obvious path to employment. I don’t think what Nina Handler is experiencing is new. But I do think it has gotten much worse.
What I know for certain is that my English major taught me critical thinking skills. It taught me philosophy and the universality of human experience. It taught me about worlds, times, and cultures I could never live in, but could visit in my mind. It led me to the realization that I was not just an American, but a citizen of the world living on a tiny point in the vast tide of human history.
As I watch the alarming rise of racism, nationalism, and other-blaming hatred in my home nation, in post-Brexit Britain, and in too many other places, I don’t think it’s the humanities that are in danger. I think it’s what the humanities create: educated citizens of the world who care about more than just themselves. People who see the improvement of others’ lives as a benefit to all, not a threat to their pocketbook or sense of identity. People who respond to differences with curiosity, not fear.
But as a humanities major, I know that all of this has happened before. I know the horrors it can lead to. I also know that humans have approached this brink — and gone over it — time and time again. Yet even in the worst of times, there are brilliant lights of our species’ greatest potential. There are creators of wondrous music, art, and literature. There are scientific breakthroughs. There are people who risk themselves to help others they don’t even know, simply because it is the right thing to do.
If I could go back to my 19-year-old self, I would offer a different answer to that question of “What are you going to do with an English degree?”
I would say: I am going to live a rich, diverse life that takes me places I never expected. And I am going to hope.
Happy holidays to all those who celebrate in their diverse ways.
(I took the photo at top in Normandy, France. Les Breves was sculpted by Anilore Banon, and stands in the sands of Omaha Beach as an homage to the many who died there in order to liberate a captive land. The three sections represent three elements: the Wings of Hope, Rise Freedom, and the Wings of Fraternity. Created for a temporary installation, this luminous art has been so popular that it remains indefinitely, a blending of art and nature: humanities at their finest.)